Wednesday, April 15, 2009
Stoic Super-Ego - The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius - Unpublished Selections Explained, Med. XI.38
Meditation XI.38 – Stoic Super-Ego - Translated by George Long and rewritten by Russell McNeil
The dispute then, he said, is not about any common matter, but about being mad or not.1
(1) The "[un]common" subject of this cryptic meditation is mental illness. This is one area where ancient Stoic wisdom has much to offer modern society. From the Stoic perspective most forms of "mad[ness]" can be traced to aberrations in thinking, or thinking that is contrary to nature. Formally, any thinking contrary to the five principles of Stoicism outlined in the book may actually manifest with symptoms that would fit a range of modern mental illness diagnoses, ranging from paranoid and delusional, to antisocial and obsessional. There are four sections (with analysis of the related meditations) in my book that address this topic directly: "Stoicism and Mental Health," Chapter 3, p. 72; "A Ten Step Program in Anger Management," Chapter 8, p. 181; "On Sexuality and Addiction," Chapter 8, p. 189; and, "On Anxiety and Depression," Chapter 8, p. 193.
Marcus is being a bit cheeky with this meditation (he does have a sense of humor). His use of the word "common" is actually meant literally. Human beings who act in accord with nature are bound together in what is, effectively, a common mind-set with a common understanding, and a common conscience - a super-ego if you will. But unlike the super-ego of Sigmund Freud - who misappropriated the concepts of ego, id and super-ego from the tripartite model of the mind (psyche) or soul (with its three distinct divisions: ruling, desiring and appetite) in Plato's Republic - the Stoic super-ego is not culturally determined. The super-ego of Stoicism (like the ruling intelligence in Plato's Republic) is invariant and truly universal. Everyone who lives according to nature is bound to the same ethical and moral standards. When we live in opposition to nature, we are thoroughly isolated from the Stoic super-ego, because we are thoroughly detached from the community of other human beings. Therefore, being "mad" is certainly an [un]common matter according to Marcus's usage.
Russell McNeil, PhD, is the author of The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius: Selections Annotated and Explained by Skylight Paths Publishing. The unpublished selections presented in this Blog are provided as supplemental material to the published selections which are annotated and explained in the book. The published selections are referenced in this Blog by page number and section.